At a speech to the National Association of Head Teachers in October 2021, newly-appointed Education Secretary, Nadhim Zahawi MP, made a commitment “to do far more for vulnerable children and make sure they have what they need to succeed.”

Expanding on his theme, Zahawi explained that he wants to see better understanding of and support for mental health, and “wellbeing at the centre of everything we do in schools” as well as a focus on “rigorous standards and high performance” and tackling the causes of persistent absence.

Zahawi went on to define ‘vulnerable children’ as those with SEND and those who are looked after. Leaving aside the problematic nature of using the blanket term ‘vulnerable’ to describe such a large and varied cohort of students, at Adoption UK we know there are thousands of children outside of those groups who need much more from our education system.

A genuine focus on wellbeing of students in education would bring enormous benefits to all children, not only those frequently classed as ‘vulnerable’, but some children, including previously looked after and adopted children, will need something more tailored to their specific needs. This will only happen if those with the power to drive real change truly understand that the impact of adverse early experiences and care experience does not disappear once a legal permanence order is issued.

There are nearly as many previously looked after children in England’s schools as there are looked after children. It is past time for the needs of this cohort of children to be given equal attention so that they can have an equal chance in learn, to thrive and to succeed in our schools.

If the Education Secretary is truly invested in doing more for ‘vulnerable children’, then Adoption UK recommends:

  • Significant investment of resources for virtual schools to greatly expand their role in supporting previously looked after children and their families.
  • A review of the effectiveness of the role of the designated teacher for previously looked after children and a commitment to properly resourcing this role in terms of funding, training and time.
  • Evidence-based guidance to support schools to make the best use of pupil premium plus funding for previously looked after children which clearly differentiates between ever-6 pupil premium and pupil premium plus.
  • A thorough review of the advice and guidance on behaviour management that is given to schools, with reference to an emerging body of research on the potential ineffectiveness and negative impact of behaviourist rewards-consequences approaches for some children.
  • The introduction of a statutory PEP-style system for all previously looked after children – a child’s educational support needs do not disappear on the signing of a legal order, and neither should their support systems.
  • Mandatory modules for trainee and early career teachers on the impacts of adverse early experience and care-experience on children’s development, learning and wellbeing, to be re-visited as part of continuing professional development for all education professionals.
  • The appointment of high-profile advisors to the Education Secretary with a proven track record in successfully meeting the needs of care-experienced children and young people in education, and a commitment to include those with lived experience of accessing education as a care-experienced person in DfE advisory groups and bodies. The voices of care-experienced and adopted adults should be front and centre of this conversation.

By Becky Brooks, Adoption UK's Education Policy Advisor